Author's Note: Hello, Everyone! I know everything sucks right now, and I'm sitting here trying to figure out how I can help with the tools I have, and as a speculative fiction writer, the thing I'm best at is asking "so what comes next?" After the ashes have cooled, we're still going to need you present and invested.
A lot of you have hopefully already donated to various organizations, but we need for everyone to put in a monthly line item in your budget for justice. If you donate directly to a Black Liberation Organization at the $15, $50, or $150 level on a monthly basis (at least three months), please let me know and send a screenshot, and I will include you in those future rewards. Here's a place to start, though it would be even better to find one local to you.
Any money this Patreon does receive for the rest of this year will go towards paying marginalized illustrators for these stories, and the remainder will be sent to my local Justice Coalition. All stories for the rest of the year will be available publicly.
This Prompt-based Fiction series starts off with this love story for your post-apocalyptic feels. The patron-submitted prompts were: Belly buttons, Face masks, Chocolate, Spangled, and Yeti.
The art for this story is by the amazingly talented Dominique Ramsey.
Please enjoy the read, comment and share, and please, please, please continue to support the protesters and activists to the best of your ability. Black Lives Matter.
The Horse Women of Cincinnati
By Nicky Drayden
There are twenty-six of them now, the horse women. Last week, they had to put the blonde one down. Twisted her ankle on a weak piece of asphalt that crumbled to bits as she ran down McMillian Street. I hadn’t been there when it happened. It was nearly a mile from where their morning route crosses in front of my apartment building, but I’d heard her scream. It was like a siren. Remember the sirens? An all-encompassing wailing from those powerful lungs.
The city mourned her hard, leaving flowers and trinkets on the spot where it’d happened. Billy Starboard even wrote a folksy ballad about her and sung it at her grave site. She was the favorite of so many, though no one would admit why. She wasn’t the fastest of the horse women by far, nor the strongest, nor the most agile. She was just as aloof as the others and wouldn’t meet anyone’s gaze. The only way she stood out from the herd was the whiteness of her skin and the angel wing tattoo that spanned her bare shoulder blades. And of course, her blonde mane. So many things have changed since the Before, but I guess that hasn't.
They’re coming now. I feel the thunder of their footsteps through the soles of my running shoes. I hitch up my wedding gown one last time, hoping the ties stay in place. The morning sun catches the sequins spangled across the bodice, casting tiny knicks of light on the battered pavement beneath me. There’s so much extra fabric now, I’m nearly swallowed, but I don’t think it should slow me down much.
“You’ll get her this time,” my landlady cheers at me from her apartment as she preens the herbs in her window box. Hints of rosemary, sage, and thyme fill my lungs, energizing me.
I nod, then look back over my shoulder. I see her, the horse woman who used to be my wife in the Before, galloping at the right flank of the leader. I waste half a moment, taking in the deep, even brown of her skin, a light sheen of sweat covering her from head to toe. Her locs are nearly down to her waist now. She’d started them the second month of quarantine, one less thing to worry about. I spend too long caught up in the past, and suddenly, the horse women are ahead of me.
Shit. I can’t miss her. Today might be the day she remembers me. I take off in a dead sprint. I’m fast. Really fast. But it’s barely enough to keep up with their effortless gallop.
“Sasha!” I call out her name. “Remember me?” I ask huffing. “Remember our wedding?”
She keeps her eyes straight ahead, doesn’t acknowledge me in the slightest. My train comes loose and drags behind me, already several shades removed from white. There’s no time to gather it back up. I can only press forward.
“Remember our kiss? How we were so nervous in front of everyone that our teeth knocked together? Remember your hand on top of mine when we cut into the--”
I get too close, and she snuffs. I don’t want to spook them and risk another injury, so I back off, slowing down. I’m nearly spent anyway. I can’t go more than half a minute at that pace. All I can do is fight away feelings of abandonment as I watch as those firm, muscular thighs pump endlessly, drawing her further and further away from me.
She couldn’t stop running, even if she wanted to. The virus had left so many with diminished lung capacity, but it had done the opposite for a small cluster of women here in Cincinnati. They say their lungs are nearly three times as efficient as before. Combine that with the lingering effects of vertigo that could only be alleviated by steady motion, and the horse women started running and never stopped. Maybe they were still close to being human in the early days, but they’d long ago crossed the threshold into something else. I know the woman I’d fallen so hard for is gone, but still I long for some morsel of recognition, so I can properly say goodbye.
So many people didn’t get to say goodbye, so I don’t know why I should be an exception. Maybe it’s just harder since I see her running past my home every morning. The rent here is decent, and I slowly sell off bits from Before to pay it. A 3 oz bottle of Burberry Brit Sheer had gotten my landlady off my back for three whole months. We’ve got running water in our apartment, but so many don’t, and it’s nice to put a little spritz in your facemask when you’re going to be around people. It was Sasha’s favorite perfume. I’d worn some on my run once, hoping scent memory would kick in and knock something loose in her brain, but she’d blown past me without notice, just like every other time.
I’d almost gotten through to her once, when I’d shown her the rainbow unicorn Mia had finger painted in Kindergarten. Sasha’s eyes had sparked when I held it out to her. Her fingers had twitched, like she’d wanted to grab it as she passed me by. It had hung on our refrigerator for years. Remember taking electricity for granted like that? Just filling up a box with a week’s worth of perishable food, and knowing it would still be good when you woke up each morning? We’d even taped it to the Yeti cooler, trying to give Mia a sense of normalcy when we were forced from our home. We’d do an ice run every three days and got used to soupy ice cream and questionable meat, until we didn’t have that either.
The horse women had left me in their dust then, clutching the artwork. My hands were so sweaty that it ripped. I’d looked down at Mia’s chunky signature and winced. They’d taken her away from me, too. Said I was negligent. Unfit. I’d laughed. Unfit? I’d shown my case worker my calf muscles. Flexed my thighs. Told her I could nearly run a 5-minute mile. I’d never been more fit in my life. But with Mia gone, there was even more time to train. And I got faster. But it was never fast enough.
My landlady flips my phone over and back. She hooks it up to a small solar array and waits a couple minutes before booting it up. The phone chirps a happy little tune, before turning to the home screen--Sasha and me, our faces pressed up right against each other. My breath catches, seeing her still like that. Unmoving. I have regrets immediately, wondering what treasure trove resides in that ancient piece of tech, but I can tell by the look on my landlady’s face that I’m never getting it back.
“Three months,” she says.
“Five,” I counter. “It was the top of the line right when the virus hit. You won’t find anything better.”
“Three months. And free hot water,” she counters. The thought of a hot shower hits me harder than I thought, but it’s a good deal, and she knows there aren’t exactly a whole lot of apartments along the horse women’s route that are in this good of a condition.
I sigh. “Deal.” My landlady pockets the phone. Last time I’d gotten a prime spot in the recharge line, nearly a year ago now, I’d charged it to 50% and then played some of Sasha’s favorite songs as she ran past that week. Little 30 second snippets, like Black Widow, the song we’d danced to before I even knew her name. She’d worn a cutoff tee, showing off her opal belly button piercing. Our eyes met from across the club and next thing I knew, we were shaking our bodies together to the beat. Remember being close to strangers like that? Sweating and breathing all over each other and not even caring?
My landlady and I don’t shake hands. No one does that anymore, but she smiles at me, a kind, but pitying smile. “You’ll get through to her eventually,” she says. “Keep trying.”
Then she rambles on about how Hairy Pete had tried to swindle her with some fake tea tree oil as I pack the other potential barters back into my go bag. There’s a portable water filter, a formidably sharp hatchet, and the foil sleeping bag she almost wanted to line the walls of her hydroponics bay but decided it was too wrinkly and worn to be of much use. Suddenly, she goes quiet. I look up and see she’s spotted the glossy brown wrapper in my bag, even from six feet away.
“What’s that?” she asks, interest suddenly piqued.
“Nothing,” I say, pulling the zipper shut. “I’ve got to go, or I’ll miss Sasha.”
“She’ll be back tomorrow. Just show me what’s in there.”
“I’ve never missed a day and don’t intend to now.” I can’t risk it. What if it’s today? The day she sees me.
“It’s a chocolate bar, isn’t it?” my landlady accuses me, her voice sounding like I’ve committed a crime.
I shake my head. I shouldn’t have even packed it, but the things I have left of value are growing slim.
“It is. Just let me look at it. Let me smell it at least,” she says. Her eyes are desperate. She takes my phone out of her pocket and hands it back to me. “Three months plus hot water. Just for a little taste.”
“It’s long expired anyway.” It was supposed to be a birthday gift for Sasha right before she’d gotten sick. I knew how much a sweet indulgence from the Before would have meant to her. I still can’t believe I’d traded a solar charger for it. Now it was worth a whole lot more.
“I don’t care.” The desperation is gone now. Anger has welled up in its place. Entitlement. “Give me the bar. You can live here for a year.”
“Two years.” Something sparks behind her eyes. Everyone who’s made it this far knows how to fight, and people have killed for much less.
She lunges for my bag. I’m torn between my urges to distance and to protect my stuff, but rage overwhelms me, and I tackle her to the ground. She hits with a thud and an “oof” but her grubby hands have got the zipper open and she pulls out the bar and is after the wrapper next.
“That’s mine,” I growl at her. I wrap my thighs around her torso like a vice and press her face to the ground. My body is my weapon. Still, she’s devoured half of the bar by the time I pry it loose. She stares at me, spite in her eyes. Chocolate smeared all over her face.
“Have your stuff gone by tomorrow,” she says as I let her up.
So many curses fill my mouth, but then I feel the beating of the horse women in my bones and know I’m too late. I’m going to miss her. I drop the bar and leave my landlady with my belongings. I’ll never see them again, I know, but I can’t miss Sasha and those things will only slow me down.
They’re already way ahead of me when I hit the pavement. I dig down deep, pushing with everything I have, moving so fast I’m afraid my feet will fly out from under me. But I close the distance. My lungs burn. I’ve never gone this far before, this fast. I am finally shoulder to shoulder with Sasha. She huffs, but I don’t back down. I have nothing left to barter for rent. I’ve traded away my entire life. She’s all I have left.
“Please!” I yell at Sasha.
Her nose twitches. Something in her body posture changes, and she slows down, falling towards the tail end of the herd. She still doesn’t look at me.
But maybe this is it, her way of letting me say goodbye. Only the words won’t come out. I’m not ready. I don’t know if I ever will be. Her hand reaches out, touches the divot of my collarbone. Her finger draws back, smudged with chocolate. Her lip quirks. Eyes flick my way, and then she digs back in and resumes her spot at the leader’s flank.
I stop dead in my tracks, pitch over, head pressed into the pavement, weeds tickling at my ears. My heart pounds hard in my chest. So hard, like it doesn’t want to be contained.
As my heartbeat quiets, so do the heavy steps of the wild herd, like they are one in the same. The horse women gallop on, never resting.